Author Adolph Reed’s book, The Jug and its Contents: A Perspective on Black Political Development raises controversial but provocative questions about Black leadership and the devolving state of the “Black community.” His basic argument is the idea that there is a cohesive Black collectivity or identity is a myth. He attempts to show why this myth was necessary after the Civil War in order to present a semblance of unity.
Later on, Black leadership, including W.E. Dubois’s Talented Tenth, could then claim to represent this “unified community,” and they defined the specific interests of the “Black community.”
Blacks were treated by others as an undifferentiated whole with no divisions or differences of opinions on significant issues. Working within the narrow opportunities provided by the segregation era, Black leaders became “middle-men” (brokers) between Blacks and the white power structure. This meant that many Black leaders were “putative” (supposed) leaders- or assumed to be so by white people.
Any effort to raise questions or to articulate a different point of view from that of the Black leadership elite was attacked as “creating disunity” and “inauthentic.” Reed concluded the myth of a single Black collectivity is a social construction of reality put together from cultural fragments and remnants of Black adaptations from the era of slavery to the early period of Jim Crow. These two myths—that Blacks constitute a single collective identity and the myth of Black authenticity— have prevented the development of a differentiated politics based on real differences and interests within the Black community.
Reed attacks “Black Power” ideology as abstract, idealistic, and not connected to the real politics of Black people because it dismissed the reality of politics Blacks practiced and replaced it with a utopian scheme. The emphasis on self-help is conservative and bourgeois because self-help ideologies do not challenge the existing social system and also place the burden for change on the victims of that system.
Reed says it is ironic that what is needed is a form of “interest group liberalism” in what passes for the “unified Black community.” Interest group liberalism assumes that there are divergent and often conflicting interests within any large group. The denial of these differences has allowed self-proclaimed leaders, often made by the media to define the interests of Blacks and to be unchallenged in doing so.
A differentiated Black collectivity leads to coalitions with other collectives, leadership that is accountable to specific Black constituencies and real democracy within what is called the Black community. Blacks are as diverse as everyone else and the denial of that simple fact has benefited mostly the Black bourgeoisie and its benefactors outside of the Black community.
Essentially, he argues both served the interests of capitalism. Moreover, he asserts both integration and Black power have aided in the reconstitution of domination, not only of Blacks but also over all of society. He concludes there is no real opposition to the administrative apparatus (government and corporations) that serve capitalism. This is due in part to the failure of the opposition and not merely to systemic repression.
Since the early 1970s, the Black movement has been pacified and depoliticized so that true emancipation seems impossible to many. Racial segregation was dismantled, but Black employment, median income, availability of housing and life expectancy did not improve from 1964 through the early 1990s. But the middle-class tends to generalize its gains as if they were the gains of the Black community because its interests and power rest on a monolithic conception of Black life.
Reed says egalitarianism and social rationality appealed to the civil rights movement and to capitalism. Egalitarianism stressed the immorality of segregation and how segregation was an obstacle to the market and to economic progress. The end of segregation opened up avenues for new forms of domination over Blacks. In addition, the radical faction of the Black movement did not critique the alliance of the Black elite with corporate liberalism. The Black power movement’s assumption that there was a Black political interest represented by community leaders strengthened the Black elite.
Reed maintains the decline of serious Black opposition to the status quo was due in part to an ideology that fit into mainstream American ideology. The Black opposition was integrated into the system in a way that strengthened the system rather than challenged it. A new mode of domination developed that domesticated negativity by creating places where these ideas could be expressed— (ethnic studies programs, cultural centers, etc.). In this way, opposition was pacified. He maintained these groups were examples of “artificial negativity,” by which he means groups that are critical, but in ways that fail to challenge the system.
However, Reed thinks opposition is possible. He suggests buying off groups only works as long as the number of such groups is limited. But more and more, status groups— women, LGBT, disabled and other minorities- are competing for shrinking opportunities available in the private sector and government.
His remedies include: Break the Black elite’s control over ideas in the Black community; critique their programs in order to “…… transcend the official Black posture of quiet acceptance of any initiative that includes an affirmative action component”; recognize the diverse interests in the Black community.
For Reed, there is a need for a critical, democratic Black political culture, and political liberalism is the first step to break the Black elite’s monolithic control.